Page 2

The Cod Liver Oil of IT

Because expertise management promises to deliver where knowledge management hasn't, it will have to overcome some bad PR. In fact, KM has been so disappointing that many CIOs cringe when they hear the term. "It's like saying, 'Here's some cod liver oil, swallow it,' " says META Group Inc. Senior Vice President Mike Gotta. "KM has failed to live up to its promise because of the oversold expectations about what 'out-of-the-box' IT solutions can deliver," says Dr. Yogesh Malhotra, chairman of the Brint Institute in Syracuse, N.Y. "KM rollouts fail because the major challenges are in implementing and sustaining systems, not procuring technologies."

Few cringe more at the mention of knowledge management than Ron Remy, the deputy CIO of the space systems division at Lockheed Martin. "You say those words and people's eyes glaze over," Remy says. And he should know: After successfully piloting an ELS program (which he calls TeamNet) at the company's Advanced Technology Center in Palo Alto, Calif., Remy wanted to gain support to install the system throughout his division. He called together several of Lockheed's scientists in order to demonstrate a new ELS system, but quickly realized his spiel wasn't sinking in. At a meeting, he recalls, laughing, "I almost put them to sleep with what I thought were some very good charts."

So Remy took a different tack and asked the scientists present to share a problem they were working on. One posed a question about insulating a spacecraft from a high-temperature nuclear power source, an issue the team considered a significant challenge. Remy entered the question into TeamNet, and, within seconds, the program returned the names and contact information of 20 Lockheed scientists that it had determined might be qualified to answer the materials question. Within 24 hours, the team had received six solid responses to their query.

What impressed Remy and the Lockheed team most, however, was the source of the answers. One key response came from a scientist who, after the Cold War, had researched how to dismantle Russian solid-rocket motors in a facility that required the use of insulating material similar to the one the physicists had questions about. "It was like that Arthur C. Clarke television show about mysterious connections," Remy says. "I mean, who would have made the connection with burning rocket motors?"

Learning from the mistakes of previous knowledge management tools, ELS allows you to apply rules to make sharing simple and to automate tasks, such as deciding who's an expert on what. Rules can also be applied to determine how questions are answered, and by whom. For example, a call-center rep would likely have his billing question answered by a business-unit head, not the CFO. Meanwhile, the "experts"—those answering the questions—have the option of passing on a query if they're too busy to help (the query is then routed to another expert). The aim is to protect top talent from constantly having to answer the same questions.

That was the problem at Caremark Rx Inc., one of the largest prescription-benefit management companies in the U.S. Although the Nashville, Tenn.-based company employs more than 11,000 people, a small group of about 150 experts within the company found themselves besieged with the same questions day after day. Moreover, the company had no way to put its stamp of corporate approval on the answers its experts were sending out.

"We wanted to streamline the process and minimize our risk," says Mark Ciamarra, Caremark's director of opportunity management. Last November, the company installed a sales intelligence database for 250 of its salespeople and account management staff. Since then, the system, which they call EPIC, has logged more than 2,300 questions and saved thousands of hours in employee time. "We have literally gone from taking days to search for something to seconds," he says. Ciamarra expects his investment of $350,000 to pay off by the end of the summer. In addition to the time savings, Ciamarra says, the business value is in freeing up the experts to focus on essential work. Plans are under way to roll out the program companywide.

Ciamarra's experience parallels that of other companies in various fields where freeing up talented people to focus on innovating, rather than on answering old questions, has been a big selling point. And some companies say the ability to provide employees with immediate answers saves them millions in lost hours and productivity. Although determining actual dollar figures is difficult, some vendors do offer functions that allow users to write in how many hours they saved thanks to the software.

A typical installation costs a few hundred thousand dollars, as did Remy's at Lockheed, but he insists it's money well spent. "You demonstrate the value of the system one time and people say, 'Why am I even pestering you with how much money you're spending? Because if you can get one more win it will pay for this system for the next five years.' And that's the IT person's dream." Remy is currently rolling out TeamNet to 5,000 technologists in the space systems division.

This article was originally published on 07-01-2004
eWeek eWeek

Have the latest technology news and resources emailed to you everyday.